Uzbekistan on Tuesday hosted an international conference on Afghanistan and offered to host peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in an effort to help end more than 16 years of war in the country.
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev told senior diplomats from regional as well as NATO member states that his county was ready to host direct talks with the Taliban.
“We stand ready to create all necessary conditions, at any stage of the peace process, to arrange on the territory of Uzbekistan direct talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban movement,” Mirziyoyev said at the conference.
The Taskhkent conference comes almost a month after the Kabul Process Conference in which the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered unconditional peace talks with the Afghan Taliban and pledged to recognize the insurgent group as a legitimate political party if it agreed to give up violence.
The insurgents have yet to formally respond to the Afghan government’s offer.
Experts offer different explanations to Taliban’s silence.
Rebecca Zimmerman, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, believes the apparent silence suggests there is some space for negotiations.
“In the past, they [Taliban] haven’t been shy about publicly rejecting talks for failing to meet preconditions, even while they have been having private conversations. So in this case, I think keeping a low profile means there may be some negotiation space.” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman’s analysis of the situation is not too far from the calculation of some in the Afghan government.
Optimism inside government
Mohammad Akram Khpalwak, chief secretary of the High Peace Council, a government funded body tasked with talking to the insurgents, told reporters earlier this month that they are waiting on an official response from the Afghan Taliban and that their sources indicated that the peace offer has led to high level deliberations among insurgents about what to do with the offer.
Afghan National Security Advisor Mohammad Hanif Atmar told VOA’s Afghanistan service last week that if the Taliban need more time than they would grant it.
“They [Taliban] neither rejected nor accepted our offer yet,” Atmar told VOA. “If they [Taliban] need more time, they can have it. However, they [Taliban] should be aware that each day by choosing to fight, they cut a day from peace.”
P.J. Crowley, former assistant secretary for Public Affairs and spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State during Obama administration said the Taliban taking time to respond is not unprecedented.
“Going back to the process in the early stages of the Obama administration, there was months at a time where we had to determine if Taliban representation was authoritative,” Crowley said.
“The fact that there would be a conversation and then there would be a lengthy period before we got an indication that there was a response or that there were actions that led us to believe that Taliban were serious, those steps took a long time,” Crowley added.
The Taliban did respond to a letter published in The New Yorker magazine by Barnett Rubin, an Afghan expert and associate director at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, in which Rubin urged the Afghan Taliban to accept ceasefire and talks with the Afghan government.
Without explicitly referring to the peace offer, the insurgent group offered a rather cold response arguing that Afghanistan was “occupied” and that the Kabul Process was seeking the “surrender” of the Taliban.
Speaking to VOA, Rubin said it is not about whether the Taliban want to talk or not, but rather about who they want to talk to and about what.
“U.S. says talk to the Afghan government. Taliban say they [Afghan government] are not the decision makers. That is not who overthrew us. It is the Americans. We [Taliban] want to talk to the Americans. It is pointless to talk to other Afghans until we [Taliban] solve our problems with the Americans,” Rubin said.
“So it is not talks verses no talks. It is whom do they talk to and about what,” Rubin added.
Thomas H. Johnson, author of the book "Taliban Narratives" and director of the cultural and conflict studies program at the Naval Post Graduate School echoes Rubin’s assessment that Taliban views Washington as the real power and wants to talk to the U.S.
“This position also corresponds with their narrative they have suggested since the beginning of the conflict and also served as an explicit informational response to Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. will not negotiate with the Taliban,” Johnson said.
“Taliban presently control more of Afghanistan since 2001 and their power and influence appear to be on the rise. It is reasonable to conclude that many Taliban including its leader Hibatullah Akhundzada believe they are winning and thus see no need for negotiation,” Johnson added.
Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based analyst with sources inside the Taliban believes their position has not changed in regards to talk with the Afghan government.
“I think they [Taliban] have time and again said that they do not want to talk to the Afghan government because it [government] does not have the real authority,” Muzhda said.
“The silence does not necessarily mean anything positive in terms of Taliban accepting the offer, as suggested by some in the High Peace Council,” he added referencing to officials’ remarks who suggested that Taliban are mulling over their response.
U.S. wants the Taliban to talk to the government of Afghanistan and welcomed the Afghan government’s gesture to offer unconditional peace talks to the insurgents.
“There is a path to peace and stability with dignity for those members of the Taliban who are prepared to reject violence, end their ties with terrorists, and to accept the constitution and its provisions for minorities and women,” Alice Wells, deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia told VOA’s Uzbek service last month.